We forget beauty; the age inspires that. Things are things, cool and sleek. Stylish is what the market aims for. It’s a throwaway world. Leonard Bellanca is an old friend from Greenfield, New York, a furnituremaker, an artist, a man who tilts against windmills with names like Ikea and Walmart. He builds beautiful things that are also useful, a pleasure to use, things that have symmetry and motion, that draw the eye like a painting and will last till someone sticks them in a museum. He works out of traditions that don’t just date back to 2010. It’s a pleasure to put his work before your eyes.
Notes on Making Furniture
What continues to hold my interest in making furniture is the relationship between the prosaic and the poetic, the utility and the beauty, the craft and the art. A sweetly fitted drawer that is a pleasure to use, is as lovely as the reflection of light from a polished surface. Both are necessary, and they complement and depend on each other. Of course I love the material, its usefulness, its beauty and odor. And I know where it comes from. I also know and understand what has to happen to the tree in order to provide me with that material. But wood is very forgiving, and now the work begins.
My work is influenced by history – in particular the American Federal period – but it is not historical. I am not interested in reproducing pieces, but rather in borrowing elements from them: an elegant curve, the taper of a leg, refined proportion, decorative details that lend contrast and interest. So in borrowing and combining, and with careful study, the work becomes something that is at once modern and traditional. This sense of old and new also defines my methods of making furniture. I rely on machines to do what they do well: milling, cutting, rough shaping, and otherwise preparing stock, but virtually everything else — joinery, fitting, final shaping, detailing, finishing- is accomplished at the bench with hand tools, and hands, and eyes, using techniques and tools that haven’t changed much in the last few centuries.
A favorite form of mine is the work table, which in its various manifestations, evolved through the first half of the 19th century as a small table or stand, usually with drawers or compartments and designed primarily to accommodate ladies’ activities: sewing and needle work, writing, serving guests. Stylistically, the form ranged from the practical austerity of the Shakers, to the very delicate, elegant, and detailed pieces typical of urban workshops.
Work Table (2007), made of cherry and bird’s eye maple with various inlays, draws on this rich history. The overall form consists of a tall skirt with five deep drawers supported by richly figured double-tapered legs, banded with holly and ebony at the transition of the leg to the foot. The four small drawers are veneered with figured maple and cock-beaded; the central drawer has an inlaid panel of figured maple outlined with ebony and holly string inlay, and is also cock-beaded.
I think this piece is successful because of its proportion and small scale, the symmetry of the drawers, and the pleasing effect of what is essentially a box on legs, but what strikes me even now is the movement in the piece. The grain of the square legs seems to spiral upward, while the dashed inlay on the center drawer goes around, even as the red cherry and pale maple are advancing and receding. I can’t say that these effects were entirely planned, but somehow that relationship that I spoke of previously, the utility and the beauty, the craft and the art, comes alive, informed by history and accomplished through long practice.
Work Table, 2007, cherry, bird’s eye maple, ebony, holly, white oak, 30″ high x 24″ wide x 16″ deep
Work Table, detail
Pair of End Tables, 2008, walnut, bird’s eye maple, ebony, holly, poplar, 29″ high x 19″ wide x 15″ deep
End Tables, detail
Chest on Stand, 2004, walnut, cherry, white oak, 48″ high x 26″ wide x 14″ deep
Chest on Stand, detail
Upholstered Bench (one of a pair), 2003, mahogany, 18″ high x 36″ wide x 20″ deep
Upholstered Bench drawing, 2003, graphite on vellum
Chest of Drawers, 2003, cherry, maple, bird’s eye maple, white pine, 38″ high x 34″ wide x 17″ deep
Leonard Bellanca is a studio furnituremaker working in Greenfield Center, New York. Since 1996 he has been designing and making furniture using traditional methods, materials, and finishes. While earning a degree in Architectural Studies from The University of the Arts, he studied furnituremaking with Michael Hurwitz and Peter Pierobon. As an intern at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bellanca assisted in the removal and relocation of important architectural woodwork made by Wharton Esherick. After graduating, he apprenticed with a professional cabinetmaker, working primarily on the restoration of 18th and 19th century American antique furniture. In 2004, Bellanca designed and built the house and shop where he now lives and works. He was a 2007 and 2008 Guest Artist of the New Hampshire Furniture Masters Association, and his work has been exhibited in various regional shows and galleries.